Less than an hour inside of Syria, I see the immense amount of change that has taken place since my last visit. The civil war has contaminated the country and each day it has gotten much worse.
On my way in, I got to see Atmah refugee camp for the first time and my heart fell to the pit of my stomach. The conditions of the camp are wretched. So many children are running around, aimless, filthy and disconnected. Some try to sell candy bars to me eagerly when I entered the camp to meet with Ziad and I slightly smiled at them as I continued to walk towards the car. Purchasing a single bar won’t make a difference in their livelihoods. This thought upsets me.
I’m honored to have my friends come to the border, greet me warmly and welcome me back. As we begin driving, I notice a young woman, no more than 20 years old, fully pregnant walking around the camp. As if her mismatched, dirty clothing weren’t enough, I notice her bare feet on the gravel path.
Where is her husband?
Does she have more children?
How will she give birth to her baby?!
There are no homes in Atmah camp. Only a variety of tents, most ripped and barely standing upright. I can’t imagine what it looks like inside. They certainly don’t have toilets or running water. How do they shower? From the looks of it, they don’t. I suppose cleanliness is the last of their concern. In the distance, I see smoke. I wonder if something is burning or its the remnants of a bomb. I don’t bother asking.
Ziad is a crazy, fast driver. I jokingly tell him I can drive better than him and he responds: “Yalla, drive!” as he pulls over. Of course, I don’t hesitate. I’m going to be the only women with these men for I don’t know how many days. I can’t let them think even for a moment I’m fearful or incapable of anything. This is my survival. I quickly open my car door before the car is at a complete stop and get in the drivers seat. Ziad sits in the back with Ahmed and Aiman. Manar is laughing hysterically, as he watches me from the passenger seat. I begin to drive and fast but not as wreck-less as Ziad. The men are impressed. After about 5 minutes or so, Ziad tells me to pull over before we pass one of the FSA checkpoints. I concur.
After a few hours of driving, we are pulled over abruptly by the Free Syrian Army. The men get out of the car to see what the issue is and one of the FSA comes to my door window. I do not make eye contact. He seems very upset. After about 5 minutes, we are driving again and Ahmed explains that I should not take photos of the FSA. I tell him immediately I did not and show him the photos on my phone. It seems when I was photographing a mosque there was an FSA military tank in front of it that I did not notice when I took the picture! Oops! I apologized.
We arrive to Ziad’s home and Majeed (Ziad’s eldest son) comes running out to hug me! What an incredible embrace. I squeeze him tightly. We walk in, I remove my shoes and go into the first room where Nesrin and I slept all of the nights in Syria. I felt right at home. The kids all run into the room and sit next to me. We are giggling and laughing together. Of course I begin to take many photos. I teach Majeed how to use my phone camera and away he goes with taking many photos. Watching the children play in glee is one of the many reasons I am here. Ziad told me after I returned to the US, how the children felt the most joy when Nesrin and I were visiting then in all the two years of the war. This is what money can not buy.
The large tray of food comes out and I eat more than I should in extreme excitement. There is this purity in Syrian food. Maybe it is the naturalness of their farming that allows their food to be rich in taste!
The children insist I go out in the field to play and I can’t help but to say yes. Off we go! So much has changed since my last visit. The flowers are dead and the land is dry. Yes it is the same place, yes but yet so different. I realize in this moment I won’t be able to compare my two trips… Ahmed joins us and we take many photos all together, as we sit on the rocks that overlook more fields. Ahmed and I can communicate now without anyone translating. It isn’t easy at all and requires much patience on both our parts but we are making much improvement. Sometimes we can understand each other 80-90% which is fantastic and other times it is 20-30% which is frustrating. Thank goodness for google translator! (except we never have wifi, go figure).
Woke up in the middle of the night, as if I didn’t sleep late to begin with to loud bangs of bombs – boom! Boom!
I lay with my eyes wide open and my heart startled. It sounds far but it still scares. Natural human reaction I suppose. I can’t believe this war is going on for over two years now. Unreal. The men look like they are senior citizens, the young men in their early 20s look middle aged and the teenagers look old. Trying to figure out how old they are is nearly impossible unless you can see it in their eyes. And to make matters worse, their eyes are gloomy and dull. The spark of life within is dimming rapidly. How is this living? Waking up to a place once called home and now a war zone. Where everything has suddenly come to an end: businesses, school, work, normal everyday activities. And now the land is being burned into pieces. It seems that if he isn’t bombing and sending rockets to villages, he is sending them to the land and killing nature in its entirety. Fool. What is the purpose of such destruction? For control? For power? For religion? For money? Nothing can justify this. Nothing.
My heart aches the most for the children. Their innocence has been gripped from within and torn apart. They have seen the ugliness of this world before they can understand what the ugliness is or where it comes from or why! They will never recover from this nor will it be forgotten. It will remain apart of them forever.
I spent the first half of my day with the children. Walking in the fields, as they speak to me in Arabic and I don’t understand a single world. It doesn’t matter to them as long as I am with them. They take my hand and show me the plants, the ants, cows, sheep, ducks, and the many animals around. They ask questions about America and I try hard to understand and answer. Sometimes we speak without knowing what the other is saying and it doesn’t matter.
I remember that I brought chalk with me so I get a couple of pieces (different colors) and go to a near building that is 1/4th done being built. I draw hop scotch with the numbers 1-10 and show the children how to play. I use a rock to make the game fun! The children are very much entertained. Then I teach them some English. Since I know a little less than a dozen words, I teach them those words in English. I ask them to repeat the word over and over again. Then I ask them each one by one to answer and to write the word for me. This takes awhile and the children love it! First there were 5 children with me and by the end there was almost 20. Amazing!
“Boneh! Boneh!” I look up to see Ziad calling for me. In case you didn’t read my blogs prior, they have trouble pronouncing the “p” in my name because there is no “p” in the Arabic language so they use “b” instead. No matter how many times I correct them, they don’t remember.
Ziad, Manar, Ahmed and I go to the hospital. I’m curious to see the difference from my last visit till now.
Wow! So much has changed. They have built an underground area with four rooms for patients and quick access. This is a necessary safety precaution. The manager of the hospital and doctor greet me warmly, welcoming me back. They show me around and explain the current status of the hospital. They thank me for the purchases from my last trip and the laptop Nesrin was kind enough to donate to them.
When we all sit to rest and the men are speaking, I take notes on what it is needed and how to divide the money I have brought with me. Ziad and I work on this together in my notebook. We decide to give $2,500 for food, $2,000 for milk and $3,000 for medical supplies. We leave some money out in case we are short or need to purchase a second vehicle when distributing the milk and food. The doctor mentions needed certain medical equipment so I tell him to create a list for me and when I return to California, I will see if I can get the equipment donated for them by hospitals and/or doctors. They thank me repeatedly.
We leave to go exchange the money. I have US dollars and Turkish Liras to exchange.. We go to a different place than the time before and the rates are better thankfully! We agree to receive 160 Syrian pounds per US dollar.
We return to eat and rest a bit. Then Manar asks if I want to visit another village and I say yes. Their living conditions are much worse than any others I have seen. I’m in such shock I don’t take any photos. Just sit and stare as we drive through… I don’t know what to say or do. Manar begins speaking to me and thankfully Ahmed has learned enough English to translate. Mashallah! Manar expresses his pain and the remnants of war in his own life. I listen carefully and I sympathize. He says his mother begs him to leave and return to Saudi Arabia where the rest of his family is.
He can not. He can not abandoned his country and his people… even if there is no end to the war. He must remain. His mother begs that he meet her in Turkey and even to this he refuses knowing that once he sees her, she will ask him to not go back to Syria and he will not be able to say no to her face. He begins to cry as he speaks and although I understand nothing directly, the tone of his voice speak volumes to me. I tell him I’m sorry and I wish there was more that I could do. He puts his hand up sternly and says that my first visit changed his life and the lives of all the people who have seen and met me. He explains I have no reason to be here and yet I come to help anyway. It is because of me that their spirits are high and they feel happy because of me. I begin to cry. I tell him how much my family is struggling with my decision to come here and how hard it is for them… And even harder for me to stand by my decision. Everyone is silent. Who would have thought amongst all our many differences, we would have such a great deal in common. We are all connected. Truly.